Monday, October 5, 2015

Yard to Table

It was two o’clock pm on a Thursday, a time when most of the village is enjoying their post-lunch repose.  The sun was high in the sky and the heat beat down on me as I walked home from the health center.  The children yelled “Bonjour Sharloti” (they can’t say Charlotte here), and rushed up to give me high fives.  I was crossing the road when I heard screaming.

But it wasn’t a human scream.  Not a woman in labor, not a heated argument among my neighbors.  No, it was a goat.

As I walked up to my house, I spotted it.  Beneath my big shade tree, a man was pulling a goat by his front legs to my neighbors.  I knew this was going to end in a bloody mess, and ultimately a goat stew.  

The man pulled the goat to a sandy area nearby, placed one foot on each pair of the goat’s legs and held his hand over the bleating beast’s mouth.  There was no saving the goat.  The man dug a little hole with the back of his machete, turned the goat’s head towards the ground, and, with one solid thrust with the machete, slit the goat’s neck.

I stood there in awe.  The bleating continued for several seconds but died down as the goat took it’s last breaths, blood squirting in pulsing blasts from the wound.  Then all was quiet.

It was at this point that I realized I would either have to become a vegetarian on the spot or accept butchering as a way of life here in my front yard.  I decided to stick with the latter, and ran back home to change into more appropriate butchering clothes.  If I had watched it die, I was committed to witnessing the entire process.

When I came back outside, my neighbor was already stoking a large fire.  The goat laid motionless next to a piece of roofing sheet metal and the machete.  She picked up the goat and threw it on top of the embers, allowing the hair to burn off.  She scraped the skin until it was smooth, rotating the animal over the flames.  After several minutes, she removed the hooves and twisted off the head, before placing the decapitated creature on the metal.

I pulled over a bench and sat down next to the woman.  With the help of her young daughter, the woman expertly butchered the goat, cutting from neck to tail.  She pried open the carcass with her bare hands, ripping apart the deep tissue protecting the internal organs.  Her daughter held the opening wide while her mother reached in and scooped up the innards, placing them in a metal bowl off to the side.  Flies began to swarm up and a pack of hungry dogs and chickens looked on with a drooling gaze.  

With the goat rinsed out, she placed the carcass on a large pile of bricks, away from the animals, and began to clean the organs.  She cut open the lungs, exposing the soft red tissue within.  When it came to the digestive tract, she skillfully squeezed the contents from the intestines, a greenish bile fluid that smelled so terrible I almost had to walk away.  She held the stomach in one hand and used the machete to slice down the middle.  The green mush began to spill out over the ground as she flipped the stomach inside out and scrapped out the contents, feeding it to the hovering dogs.  The inside was rough and lined with cilia, making the cleaning process all the more difficult.

Once the organs had been cleaned out and cubed, she began to roll up pieces of the stomach and tie it together with intestines.  The little sachets looked like expertly crafted white sushi rolls, and within a few minutes, neighbors started coming over to buy pieces of meat.  While I had been a curious onlooker until this point, speaking in broken Idaasha about eating goat, I decided I should lend a hand and help with the rest of the preparation.  

With two hands, I held one side of the goat while the woman cut down the middle, slicing through the spine.  The sheet metal was dripping in bodily fluids and the goat slipped down it’s grooves when we put it down.  Holding one half of the goat, we cut small chunks off, breaking the ribs and sawing through the rough hide.  The metal bowl was filled to the brim with large hunks of goat meat, ready for stewing.

The clean-up process was fairly simple.  Where there was blood and bile, the kids shoveled sand to bury the odor.  The metal sheet was rinsed off and laid in the sun to dry.  The meat was thrown into a large wok shaped dish on the fire with boiling water, where it began to simmer.  The woman added a bowl’s worth of freshly ground hot pepper and two seasoning cubes.  More woman and children came over to buy pieces of meat and fat, bringing their own bowls to collect the soup.  

After an hour on the fire, the meat was done.  I accepted a bowl and shared it with the kids around me, being careful to avoid the broken pieces of sharp vertebrae and intestine bundles that floated around ominously.  The meat was good: tender and flavorful.  I picked at it, gnawed on some of the tougher parts, and left the rest for the children, who happily devoured the rest.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of our biggest tasks is to integrate with our community: learn their customs, eat their food, and if you’re lucky, pick up some of their language.  While the butchering of an animal is commonplace here, it is also a matter of survival.  I learned a lot about my neighbors in those four hours with the goat and while I don’t think I’ll ever butcher a goat on my own, at least I know that I can stomach it!

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